Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Leigh Hilbert
“The longer you keep something, the more likely something’s going to happen to it,” muses Jack Thompson while he leafs through a couple of photo albums from his nearly thirty-five years living in Royal Gardens, Puna. “A fire, flood, an ex-wife … something’s going to get it.”
And in some cases what gets it is a volcano. The Royal Gardens subdivision was built in the southeast rift zone of Kilauea, the Big Island’s most active volcano. After the mountain started its current eruption cycle in 1983, several communities in the path of the lava were consumed house by house, street by street. Much of the village of Kalapana disappeared under the lava in 1990, leaving behind road signs sticking mournfully out of a black desert. Part of the Royal Gardens subdivision was also obliterated then— but not Jack’s house.
Lean, tanned and weathered, 50ishlooking though he’s actually in his 60s, Jack wouldn’t look out of place in a cowboy hat or a coonskin cap. Had he been born in the nineteenth century, he’d probably have ended up in some frontier cabin. Instead he found his way to lower Puna, where he built his own home—twice—in the district’s most remote subdivision. When lava started moving in, his neighbors started moving out until Jack was the last man standing. He remained there alone, living a life mostly cut off from the outside world, hauling in supplies on his motorcycle or on foot after lava buried the last road to civilization. Solar panels supplied power for his lights; when he wanted to watch movies on his TV, he fired up a gas-powered generator. Two steel catchment tanks supplied rainwater. With no working refrigerator, he relied on canned goods and on fresh fruit from his yard. He held out for as long as he could, until last March when the lava finally took his home.